Series: Jordan Sandor (Book 4)
Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: Post Hill Press (April 26, 2016)
Purchase at Amazon
Bronx native Jeffrey Stephen's Rogue Mission is a crisply written and plotted novel in the tradition of Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, James Patterson and other luminaries in the thriller genre. This is the fourth book in the Sandor's series, perennial Amazon best sellers, the others being Targets of Deception, Opportunity, and Revenge. The series has become increasingly popular amongst aficionados of that legion of hard men who mince few words, don't apologize for America, battle world-wide evil (particularly the Islamist variety), and rarely miss when discharging lead in the direction of our country's enemies. Think of Sandor as James Bond as he'd act and behave if he grew up in The Bronx. In a conflict between the two, Bond wouldn't have a chance.
Now, in the modern-day suspense thriller, certain things are expected and Rogue Mission serves up the goods. These include:
All these elements are in place as the action of Rogue Mission kicks off. The problem with writing a review of a suspense novel is if you say too much, you immediately run the risk of spoilers. I'll simply say the action of the book kicks off when our hero nearly dies during a terrorist attack in Hartford, CT. (Yes, Hartford. Why not Hartford? Isn't it time we all gave New York a rest?)
As he recovers from his wounds (Sandor, while tough, is no cartoon-style superman who can undergo crashes and rapid deceleration events that would macerate his every internal organ), he begins to dig into the circumstance surrounding the bombing, which also kills one his best friends, a federal judge. Despite being ordered off the mission, he continues to dig into the case, hence the "Rogue" in the title of the book. What he finds launches him on a mission to thwart a conspiracy stretching from City Island to Syria. Evil is definitely afoot and it will take all of Jordan's skill and macho to foil the plot and ensure the bad guys get what they deserve. (Boy, do they ever.)
A nice bonus of Rogue Mission is a plot that didn't make my eyeballs roll back in my head. Over the years, I've stopped watching Bond movies because the stories have become increasingly ridiculous. I finally snapped after watching Die Another Day, which featured a North Korean baddie transformed into an English Twit via plastic surgery! Everyone thinks the movie was very avant garde because the opening scenes show Bond being tortured, but since Madonna was also in the film, I thought that was simple justice.
(OK, I admit it, I watched Skyfall on Netflix. Prometheus made more sense.)
One of the fun sub-plots of the book revolves around two lightly disguised celebrities (you'll figure out their identities almost instantly) who are kidnapped and held hostage in a Middle East refugee camp by the bad guys. I particularly enjoyed this part of the tale because I actually rooted for the imperiled famous personalities and worried about their fate. If I were to attempt to write a high-tech thriller with people from People magazine, I'd pick Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian and spend the rest of the novel torturing them to death. (OK, I'd go easy on Kim; after all, she is a mother of two. Bieber, no mercy.) It's why I'm probably not the right choice to author this class of book.
When I read a suspense thriller, I apply a simple test. Once I start reading the book, do I have a hard time putting it down until I reach the end?
Rogue Mission easily met that test.
Read my interview with author Jeffrey S. Stephens on Jordan Sandor, Rogue Mission, and The Bronx by clicking on this link.
Hell is Empty and All the Devils Are Here by Mark S. Rounds
Paperback: 516 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (August 31, 2015)
Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
One of my most intense cinematic experiences was watching George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead one evening late at night on channel seven (ABC) when I lived at home in The Bronx. I almost turned the knob on the film, turned off by the seemingly lame dialogue and cheesy photography and then the first zombie, the guy stumbling around in the background shot of the graveyard, moves (well, shuffles) into action and BOOM! the movie takes off and doesn't let down for a single second.
To this day I remember that as the film progressed, an eerie feeling came over me that I wasn't watching a film so much as a documentary. I now sort of understand the feelings of all those thousands of people who were terrified by Orson Well's 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, even those who knew they were listening to a dramatization. It's a rare atmosphere that only a handful of films I've watched have been able to create. I never watched the original Night again, wanting to keep the memory of that unique experience fresh in my mind.
From that peak experience, my relationship with zombies and the genre has deteriorated. The problem is me. I just have a hard time taking all these zombie movies seriously, particularly the classic "return from the dead" variety. (Though anyone who has watched Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump stalk the land recently understands that the Walking Dead still remain beside us.)
It's my inner scientist that's the problem. You see, being dead is accompanied by a series of handicaps and issues that challenge the whole perambulation and dining activities that seem to motivate the newly expired zombie. Looked at holistically, they're hard to ignore.
Take walking, for instance. Now, when you die, you begin to putrefy quickly. The Walking Dead takes place in Georgia and I've been in Georgia in the summer. It's pretty darn hot and I give any strolling corpse a week, tops, before they transform into a revolting glop of goo and stop going anywhere. (And I'm not sure how you chow down on a screaming, wriggling victim once all your jaw muscles have melted. And ligaments really do count for something.) The name of the most popular zombie show of all time should be The Disgusting Dead and it should have gone off the air years ago.
Also, zombies aren't the smartest folk around. Their strategic and tactical capabilities seem limited to shuffling slowly in giant hordes, when they're not being lured in just about any direction you want by one of several methods, including turning on your chain saw, accidentally firing a found from your shot gun, or whispering in a loud sotto voce voice to your survivalist band that they need to keep it down because, dash nabbit, there are zombies everywhere. I mean, really. The NRA has ensured that when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, a group of well organized Boy Scouts armed with 30-06 hunting riles will have enough ammo to get the situation under control in a couple of weeks.
I understand that today's zombie literati wish to expand the emotional and artistic reach of zombiedom, but I'm skeptical of these efforts. I did my best to express my feelings on the subject in this excerpt from Selling Steve Jobs' Liver: A Story of Startups, Innovation, and Connectivity in the Clouds:
“Landon, I can understand your viewpoint, but I can’t endorse it.” Ignacio’s tone was stern. “The zombie movie must evolve. Many of these films have taken the zombie to places none of us expected. ‘Warm Bodies,’ for example. Read the comments on the board. About how the movie explores the zombie’s emotional world in fresh new ways. Another referred to it as the best love story since ‘Love Story.’”
“Love story?” Michael said. “Don’t zombies want to eat their dates? I just don’t see that as romantic. In ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ when Romeo dies, Juliet doesn’t treat him as a snack. Besides, if zombies are so wonderful, why haven’t they done one with your local hero, Elvis?”
“They have,” Ignacio said.
“‘Bubba Ho Tep.’ A classic,” said Landon.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Just to give my friend here some support, I don’t understand how zombie movies can ‘evolve.’ I mean, zombies are dead, right? Their whole goal is to not evolve.”
Ignacio shook his head sadly. “Nate, you need to expand your horizons. America has embraced the zombie. ‘The Walking Dead’ proved the point. How many zombie movies have you seen? Other than ‘Dead Snow?’ How can you criticize something you haven’t truly experienced?”
“Ignacio, I haven’t experienced going to International Falls in the middle of winter and licking an aluminum lamp post with my tongue, either. Something a zombie could do with absolutely no discomfort, even if they left their tongue stuck to the pole.”
OK, enough kvetching about zombies. Let's get to the review of Hell is Empty.
Mike Rounds' opus (the first of three parts, I believe), is not technically a "zombie" book, but is written in the spirit of 28 Days Later, a zombie sub genre I'll refer to as an "infected." Many zombie purists sneer at infected movies and some harsh words were directed at the the ending of 28, in which the rage-ridden "undead" of the film starve to death. This fate seemed to make sense, and, if you were willing to indulge in a leap of the imagination and accept the proposition that most of the Italian, Indian, Chinese and other ethnic eateries were destroyed by the raging apocalypse sweeping the British isles, logical. Having been to the U.K., I myself would rather starve than eat native British cuisine. Much of it tastes like it was made from leftover parts of the undead.
Hell is Empty takes place in Washington state and chronicles the outbreak of a new blood borne-virus that is causing its victims to manifest some very ominous symptoms, including super strength, a high level of resistance to being shot, stabbed, tased, etc., and that classic zombie desire to chomp on any victim it can get its hands on. The origin of the disease is initially a mystery, and one that remains unrevealed by the end of this first book, but luckily for my inner scientist, the victims of the disease are not "undead," follow the rules of physics and biology (mostly), are at least at some level aware of their dilemma and, as would make sense when dealing with any biological agent, curable in some cases.
I can't tell you what a relief the above is. As I progressed through the story, which goes at a very rapid pace, I was able to completely suppress the usual eye rolling and internal snorting that interrupts my attempt to read a zombie story. Instead, I focused on the story, the characters, and the mysteries embedded in the plot.
Author Round's bio states he's been an Air Force officer who worked on B-52 radar systems and his descriptions of military procedures and the use of weapons systems adds that bit of verisimilitude that I found so compelling in Night of the Living Dead. In fact, one very minor criticism of the book is that I believe some of hardware profiles can be dialed back a bit in favor of more character and plot development. But you firearms aficionados out there will enjoy the author's command of modern day weaponry.
The plot of Hell follows a fairly familiar arc. As the infection begins to vector out of from its point of origin, initial order and discipline is replaced by increasing chaos and social breakdown. In keeping with the book's realistic feel, the processes, mistakes, and inevitable snafus follow logical paths and outcomes. While the book doesn't break any new territory, the pacing and descriptions keep you engrossed and turning the pages. And because the "zombies" in the story are real, suffering people, their fates and plight keep you emotionally engrossed and connected. In Hell, some people will be saved, and you invest your emotions in trying to figure out who will be spared and who's headed for that Big Zombie Graveyard in the Sky.
For you fans who want to sink your teeth into a zombie epic that makes a whole lot more sense than the raft of almost all the undead chronicles currently entering the market, even the ones that have a lightly applied and unconvincing patina of "science" attached to them (yeah, I'm looking at you, World War Z), Hell is Empty and All the Devils Are Here is a treat.
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